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Lights, Camera, Representation!
May 20 2021
In Hollywood, there is a history of overlooking disabled actors and using able-bodied actors for portrayals of actors with disabilities. This overlooking of the disabled is a very important issue because nearly 20% of Americans have a disability and they rarely get the spotlight or chance to convey their experiences through movies and television. While every disability deserves the spotlight, the disability that is being put in the spotlight with this paper is Deaf and hard of hearing people in television and movies. Looking specifically at the Deaf and hard of hearing, we can spotlight two popular movies and one popular television show, each with one Deaf character, and examine them closely for their portrayal of Deaf culture.
The first portrayal of the Deaf culture that is going to be examined is the portrayal of the Deaf character Regan Abbott in the 2018 movie named A Quiet Place. This movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the surviving humans are forced to live in silence because of these ultra-sensitive hearing aliens that will kill the humans if the aliens hear them. The main story follows the Abbott family--Lee and Evelyn Abbott who are the mom and dad, and their three children Regan, Marcus, and Beau Abbott--as they try to live their life silently. Since the Abbott family can not talk aloud and their daughter Regan can not hear, the Abbott family uses American Sign Language to communicate. Millicent Simmonds, the actress that plays Regan Abbott, is actually Deaf. In fact, behind the scenes, Millicent Simmonds taught the cast and crew sign language, both for the actor's parts in the movie and so that the cast and crew could communicate with her. In an interview with John Squires, the movie's director John Krasinski said, "Learning ASL for this was so amazing because, yes, it would be great for the movie, and, yes, it was a really cool thing to show on-screen… but for us it was so much more than that because we had Millie," he told us. He continued, "Having her… it was almost like she was my parent because as I was trying to sign to her, she had the most wide-open face and was so appreciative that we were even giving it a shot. And just saying, like, ‘That's not quite it, do it again.' It was like my best friend, mom, sister, everything, was teaching me ASL! It was such a beautiful moment." (Squires, 2018) In the same interview with John Squires, John Krasinski says that casting Millicent Simmonds was a good decision from day one. Krasinski knew he wanted a Deaf actress to play his on-screen Deaf daughter. After casting Millicent Simmonds, Krasinski would have Millicent walk him though the Deaf experience, and Millicent would even help make the scenes more real and authentic to the Deaf experience. For Krasinski, hiring a deaf actor for the role was non-negotiable. "She can give a much more honest and layered performance because she's actually experiencing it," he said. "I needed a guide. I needed someone to actually help me talk about the nuance of -- or talk to me about the nuance of -- what it's like to be a member of a family when you're deaf and they're hearing." (Peitzman, 2018). "[Simmonds] was not intimidated. She would tell me, ‘This is what I would do in the moment […] and this is what a fight would look like with my dad.' It was so great." (Squires 2018) These different assets that Millicent Simmonds brought to the movie A Quiet Place were great assets that helped the cast, crew, and audience learn a little bit about the Deaf experience, something that an actress who was pretending to be Deaf could not have brought to the movie. That is why it is so important and special that A Quiet Place director John Krasinski decided that it was important to him to have a Deaf actress in this movie that he was directing.
The next portrayal of the Deaf culture that is going to be examined is with the character of John Myers from the television show Criminal Mind more specifically in the 2012-2013 season 8. This television show follows the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, as the unit tries to stop serial killer John Myers a.k.a "The Silencer". The main storyline follows the Deaf and abused John Myers as he escapes prison during his prison transfer and goes back to killing and sewing his victims mouths shut. Even though both the character John Myers and the actor who plays him, Troy Kotsur, are both Deaf that was not the originally the case according to The Fountain Theatre website. Initially the character was a hearing unsub (unidentified subject), and producers had hired hearing actor Matthew Jaeger to play the character. Since that character's role originally only had a lot of actions but no speaking lines Matthew Jaeger decided to encourage the Criminal Minds producers to widen their search to include Deaf actors for the character. That was when Deaf actor Troy Kotsur auditioned for the role. In the Fountain Theater article, Troy Kotsur talks about his audition saying "I walked into the casting director's office and saw about 10 hearing actors in the waiting room. They were auditioning for the same role as I was going for. After I auditioned, I felt great with the choices I made to present the character. At first, I assumed they did not know much about Deaf people. During the process, I thought: Did they understand anything I signed? Could they tell if I played the way they wanted the character to be? Did they see the details I brought with my face, eyes and body language for the character? Could they tell the difference between hearing actors and Deaf actors? Is there a difference? Or could only an expert, who knew both cultures, catch the differences? Did the team know what they were looking for? Most teams don't know until they see what the actors bring in the room. Deep down inside, I was hoping they wouldn't hire me because I was Deaf. I wanted to believe they would hire me because of the skills, nuances, and the specifics of what I was able to give for my character, for their story. Good acting. After I auditioned, I felt that it was possible that they did see the specifics and moments. It was a positive experience." (Fountain Theatre, 2012) Once the producers saw Troy Kotsur's audition tape, and hired him they re-wrote the script to make the character Deaf. This change gave a talented actor like Troy Kotsur an amazing opportunity but even more, it made headway for normalizing inclusion of Deaf experience in popular television.
In contrast to A Quiet Place and Criminal Minds which both have actual Deaf actors and actresses for their Deaf characters, the movie Hush has a Deaf character played by a hearing actress. The movie Hush follows Maddie, a Deaf writer who is isolated in the woods as she has to fight a masked killer for her life. While the screenplay written by Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel called for a Deaf character, the movie had money constraints, which led to Kate Siegel playing the lead. Of note, however, Kate Sigel and Mike Flanagan did conduct research about Deaf culture, and they hired Deaf consultant to help make the movie as realistic as possible. The Deaf consultant had two main jobs- first to train Kate Siegel in American Sign Language, and second, to make script recommendations to help ensure the portrayal of the Deaf character would be accurate. One of the main changes that the Deaf consultant recommended, according to Mike Flanagan, was changing Maddie from being born Deaf to being sick with meningitis and being left Deaf by the sickness. This change in script causes Maddie to feel isolated from the Deaf community because she was not born Deaf. The change allowed Kate Siegel to play more into Maddie's isolation instead of her Deafness. Kate says it best with this quote from IndieWire's website, "What I could write about was being isolated or having your whole world changed based on one experience". Siegel said she wasn't necessarily trying to play the character to mimic the deaf experience, but instead to focus on telling the story of a woman who isolated herself by choice. "Something happened to her [Maddie] in the world [that] left her feeling like nobody could hear her, like she couldn't speak, like she couldn't be heard," she said. Maddie, for Siegel, could be any person who feels alone and who, in this case, happens to be deaf. It's the filmic equivalent of person-first and identity-second." (Lopez, 2020)
While both Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel did a great deal of research about the Deaf community there were actually many criticisms against deafness related aspects of the movie from the Deaf community. One of critics of Hush is Deaf blogger Rebecca-Anne Withey who critiqued Kate Siegel's inconsistent use of American Sign Language throughout the movie. Another critic of Hush is Deaf Actress Millicant Simmonds who is from A Quiet Place. She called the movie inauthentic in the way it portrays Deaf culture and Deaf people in general. In IndieWire, Millicent Simmonds says that she went to see Hush with a group of Deaf friends, and they were all highly critical because the movie did not feel real to them. After such criticisms emerged, Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel apologized for their decision to cast Kate Siegel as the Deaf Maddie and said that they would not have had the same decision today. While it would have been better to have a Deaf actress play Maddie because the Deaf can tell their own stories better than any hearing person the movie, is still a pretty good movie to watch.
After learning about how using hearing actors can result in poor representation of the Deaf, hopefully Directors will think more before casting hearing people to play Deaf characters, and more broadly cast disabled actors for characters with disabilities. The main point that this paper is trying to make is that Deaf actors and actresses should be employed just as much as everyone else, but Directors should definitely choose Deaf talent if their character is Deaf. The Deaf culture and Deaf actors and actress in general will be able to tell the stories of Deaf characters in television and movies in the ways that their own community will find authentic and relatable.
Admin. (2021, February 04). How hollywood fails to properly portray disabled people. Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://abilitymedical.net/how-hollywood-fails-to-properly-portray-disabled-
Casting deaf roles in movies. (2021). Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://www.nad.org/deaf-roles-in-movies/
Hush. (2016, April 08). Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5022702/?ref_=nm_knf_t2
John Myers. (2018). Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://criminalminds.fandom.com/wiki/John_Myers
Lopez, K. (2020, October 20). How deafness in horror evolved beyond damsels in distress. Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://www.indiewire.com/2020/10/mike-flanagan-hush-deafness-in-
A quiet place. (2018, April 06). Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6644200/
Peitzman, Louis (2018, April 04). Retrieved May 20, 2021 from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/louispeitzman/a-quiet-place-john-krasinski-emily-blunt-horror
Squires, J. (2018, March 14). John Krasinski on the importance of casting DEAF ACTRESS millicent Simmonds in 'A QUIET PLACE'. Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://bloody-
disgusting.com/interviews/3488538/john-krasinski-importance-casting -deaf-actress-millicent-simmonds-quiet-place/#:~:text=The%20film%20industry%20 has%20recently,of%20Maddie%
TV show CHANGES role from hearing to deaf to Nab DEAF actor IN 'Cyrano'. (2012, July 26). Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://intimateexcellent.com/2012/07/06/tv-show-changes-role-from-
Notes: Also See: Deaf Entertainment and Art
Movies and the Deaf
ASL and Movies
Marlee Matlin 2, 3
National Theater of the Deaf (NTD) 2, 3, 4
Famous Deaf Actors and Actresses
Deaf Theater 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
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